Is The Standard of MLS Really Improving?

The last two years we have been subjected to loads of conversation, some of it even bordering on propaganda as to how the league is constantly improving. While from a technical standpoint the league seems to be getting better, the results of MLS clubs in competitions against foreign clubs as evidenced by Houston’s thrashing at the hands of Gambro Osaka of the J-League this morning is as poor as it has ever been. This piece is not meant to advocate the position that MLS is not improving, because deep down I believe it is, but it is meant to ask the critical questions that seem to be not asked because so many of us want the game to succeed and are scared to bring up some very obvious points of discussion.

An MLS club has not won an international competition since the Los Angeles Galaxy won the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2000. In 1998, DC United won both the CONCACAF Champions Cup and Inter-American Cup. So if I can count correctly (and I assure you, I can) that is three pieces of international silverware for MLS sides in the leagues first five years, and none in the leagues previous seven seasons. We also hear that MLS is signing better foreign players than ever before? Then how do you explain MLS losing players in both 1996 and 2000 to the European Championships, but the likely hood that not a single active or former MLS player will participate in this summer’s Euro 2008?

How easily is it explained that in 1998, five non-CONCACAF players left MLS during the summer to play in the World Cup, while in 2002 the MLS did not have a single non-American on a World Cup squad, and in 2006 not a single non CONCACAF player? Does this indicate that the foreign players MLS has been signing since the turn of the millennium have been either over the hill or not good enough to make their respective national sides?

Now, I happen to believe MLS is improving by leaps and bounds when compared to the league circa 2002 or 2003. No doubt can be left that the case is such. However, the early days of MLS before we had 24/7 soccer networks like our own CSRN, Gol TV or Fox Soccer was a period where MLS as new league was surprisingly competitive immediately internationally and created a number of outstanding pool players for the United States and even some other nations. At the time MLS was more of curiosity internationally than it is today: at the time when I traveled I would be peppered with questions as to the style of play and standard; asked about Valderrama, Donadoni or Matthaeus, all of whom were still playing with their national teams when they were active in MLS. (Unlike David Beckham and Juan Pablo Angel who at this moment are not active or serious pool players with their nations.) Today when I travel, MLS is either never mentioned or some joke about Beckham is brought up. (except in Mexico where the subject of Landon Donovan seems to be a national obsession.)

Too many soccer fans are new to the sport in the next few years and have accepted as gospel the line that MLS is constantly improving. The reality is MLS substantially regressed in quality between say 2000 and 2003. I saw it with my own eyes and I myself had a much harder time watching the very same matchups I used to race home to see. But this regression was necessary: the cost cutting and financial management of that period is why MLS is around today. Nonetheless serious questions need to be asked about the quality of MLS, and why the league suddenly is providing less young and effective American pool players than in the 1996 to 2001 period. Why do you Americans whose counterparts ten years ago were developed effectively in MLS, now have to go to Europe to develop or get paid a respectable salary? Why does MLS have fewer notable internationals from outside the CONCACAF region that are still on their national team today then ten years ago? Finally, why is the league so uncompetitive on the international scene when the early DC United and LA Galaxy teams were seemingly much more likely to compete at a higher level and win, even in front of pro Mexican crowds. These are questions that must be asked going forward.

11 thoughts on “Is The Standard of MLS Really Improving?”

  1. While last night’s scoreline was horrible, the reality is that on the whole the Dynamo did not play bad, especially in midfield, but Gamba Osaka converted every opportunity presented to it – taking full advantage of the absence of Eddie Robinson and the lack of communication between Boswell and Ianna. Its clear that in addition to shoring up its forward situation, the Dynamo are going to need to work on making its back line more cohesive.

    Osaka deserved to win this tournament. That being said, I hope Garber was watching, and paying attention to how a team like Osaka, which was missing lots of starters due to injuries and international duties, managed to still field a well skilled squad. It’s time to raise the salary cap and create real team depth in the MLS.

  2. When I saw the score from last night I knew that i would see a sky is falling and we suck posts but I’m disappointed that it comes from you. They(Houston) got their asses kicked and they will be better for it. Hey, LA looked better and so it wasn’t a total wash.
    Please don’t panic and leave the doom and gloom to bigsoccer and Steven Cohen!

  3. This is a very good post. I have made this point time and time again. MLS now is just getting back to the level of the late 1990s.

  4. “Then how do you explain MLS losing players in both 1996 and 2000 to the European Championships, but the likely hood that not a single active or former MLS player will participate in this summer’s Euro 2008?”

    And yet you don’t seem to count the call ups for Copa America…Jaime Moreno went last year.

    There you know, IS a world of football that exists outside of Europe.

    Don’t be a eurosnob.

  5. Oh yeh, raise the damn salary cap, that’s really the thing that hasn’t kept pace with the league’s growth.

    It grows at a glacial rate. Meanwhile Japan does not have a salary cap, just a salary minimum $45,000 per player.

    And no hiring scrubs who can’t hang with their imports.

  6. I’m not sure I even understand the premise of this post. You first attack MLS for its lack of competitiveness internationally but then compliment MLS for its accomplishments in the early days of the league and its fiscal policies.

    In other words you dance back and forth from the Stephen Cohen school of bashing MLS and anything American soccer to the MLS apologist school of saying all these teams have won trophies and titles thanks to MLS foresight.

    The truth lies somewhere in between but you have resorted to hyperbole and have conveniently taken both the anglosnob and yank argument in the very same post!

  7. This is an interesting post. I happen to agree with it quite honestly. I think MLS was way under appreciated in its early days and the league as a whole was better than it even is today. However the league feels better now because of the 24/7 soccer networks that Kartik mentioned as well as the dumping of the shootout, clock counting down, and the horrid uniforms and logos most MLS teams originally used.

    But the truth is in the early days of the league we developed more good young national team ready players and we able to export more foreign players developed in this league like Shaun Bartlett and Stern John abroad to much success. We also really mined Africa extensively with such players as Ben Iroha and Uche Okafor both of whom played in World Cup 1998 while in MLS.

    I really find this to be an insightful post which for those of you who don’t know the history of this league and the mistakes that Sunil Gulati and Doug Logan made with finances can be a refresher course.

    I too am frustrated by the lack of depth MLS teams currently have. It seems like in the league’s early days the salary cap was selectively enforced and I firmly believe the DC teams of 1996 to 1999 would win MLS in a cake walk today.

  8. You know that last post makes a lot of sense but the bottom line is we have a more football savvy public now and while the results may have been good in the 1996 to 2000 period steven cohen and the eursnobs didn’t have a microphone then like now and while this post may make perfect sense, kartik you have clearly demonstrated you are on our side in this and shouldn’t give our critics and enemies fodder to use in their rants against MLS. So please take this post down.

  9. I think the lack of exports for the Euro Championships has to do with MLS focus. Didn’t the league make a statement 1-2 years ago about its plan to attract Latin players from Central and South America? I could be mistaken, so if I am please let me know. As a result of that we have been introduced to an improving technical game, with Gomez and hopefully DC’s new stocks of imports as well as Marinelli in KC etc. If anything these imports should add some excitement to the game as they bring a more attacking mentality, something that at time the MLS lacks.

    The league is not as talented as in its early years, but lets hope that the technical style of the leagues current imports can inspire a new generation of American players to drive the league for years to come.

    P.S. By the way the salary cap is a headwind, and does need to be resolved.

  10. One measure of the MLS’ increasing popularity is the great response were seeing to this blog. People are caring about soccer in America!

    Good job NJ by seeing that the real job the Euro-imports have is to inspire a new generations of American players, who hopefully will stay in America to play.

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